Friday, July 8, 2011

Gunks Routes: The Seasons & More

I'm getting behind in my blogging. I've been climbing but I haven't been posting. A few quick climbing days in a row plus a week's vacation will do that to you.

Flashback to June 20. My friend Maryana and I took advantage of a break in the summer heat to get in a pleasant weekday's climbing.

We both had similar goals. I've been working back into the 5.9's, and Maryana is starting to lead them too. Or I guess I should say Maryana has just started leading 5.9, but she's rocketing through the grade and I have no doubt she'll leave 5.9 in the dust in short order. As recently as March she'd only led a couple trad pitches in her life. But her growth has been rapid and amazing to watch. She weighs next to nothing, she has great instincts, and she climbs all the time. She also has several partners who climb much harder stuff. All of this taken together means she'll soon be leading climbs that I have hardly any hope of following, much less leading myself.

But for now, in this one brief moment in early summer 2011, she and I can be plausibly considered equals.

On June 20 we had a really good day together. I warmed us up on V-3 (5.7). It was my first time on the route. It was pleasant but not as exciting as I expected. I thought I would be forced to use opposition and stemming to get up into the famous V-shaped notch that ends the pitch, but to my surprise I found good face holds inside the notch, pulled easily up into it, clipped the pin, and the climb was basically done. Nice, but nothing to rave about, in my opinion.

Then I suggested Maryana lead Absurdland (5.8; I believe Williams used to call it 5.9-). I led it two years ago, and I remembered it as having good crux thin face climbing, which is Maryana's specialty. I also remembered the crux as being short, so I thought it would be well within her abilities. I actually remembered the climb as being a little underwhelming, because after the low crux moves it eases off into mellow cruising on lower-angled jugs for the final two-thirds of the pitch.

Well, Maryana managed the low cruxes quite well, and placed great gear, sending the climb with style. As I followed the pitch I was impressed. The hard bit is a little longer than I remembered, with two or three steep crux moves in a row. The hands are good. The feet are thin and more of a challenge. The cruiser climbing above is very nice. I decided I've been underrating Absurdland. It is a beautiful pitch.

I next proposed we head down to The Seasons, for a couple reasons. The first was that I wanted to lead The Spring. I thought it fit my "easy" 5.9 criteria. The crux seemed like it would be short, at a little rooflet about 15 to 20 feet up, and it appeared the pro was good, with a vertical crack running up the whole pitch. I had seen reports that the early pro was a little tricky, but that the crux pro was solid. I was ready to give it a go.

The second reason I wanted to head down to the Seasons was that I hoped we could toprope the other, harder Season climbs, and that I would learn a thing or two from Maryana. One of the reasons she's improved so quickly is that she's been climbing with people who like to work these harder climbs. I wanted to see what she'd do with The Fall (5.11a) and The Summer (5.11d). And I wanted to see if I could do anything with them as well. I'm not much of a toproper but a few weeks before I'd been surprised at my success on Maria Redirect (5.11a), and I was curious to see if that success was just a fluke.

(Photo: Past the crux rooflet on pitch one of The Spring (5.9))

But before we could work on the 5.11's I had to lead the 5.9.

It went down pretty quickly. In my opinion the first pitch of The Spring is one of the easier 5.9's I've led this year. I got some disagreement on this point from other folks on, so you should keep in mind that I am fond of corner climbs like The Spring. Perhaps the climb actually plays to some unknown strength of mine, which makes it seem easier to me than it would to others? But in my experience, the moves up to the rooflet are straightforward, and then the move over the roof is strenuous but features great holds. One more steep move after that, again with very positive holds, and the real business of the pitch is over. What remains of the pitch is a somewhat awkward exit from the corner to the right and up, then the final easy moves to the bolted anchor.

The pro did prove to be surprisingly tricky. The crack at the back of the corner is the only place to put pro until you reach the rooflet, and it is a pretty thin seam. I worked in a nut a few moves up. I tested it for a downward and outward pull and I thought it would hold, but I also expected it to lift out as I got higher, and it did. Nevertheless I think this nut was acceptable for its purpose; if I'd fallen right after placing it I think it would have held me. I then worked a pretty marginal C3 into the crack just a couple feet above the nut. I wasn't sure what this cam was worth, but it was just another step to the rooflet, where I had dynamite pro in the horizontal to the left.

Above the rooflet, the crack at the back is again the thin seam, and if you feel like it you can hang in there and try to place a tiny nut. I didn't try. I took the extra step, and then got a bomber red C4 over my head where the crack widened. Looking at this pro afterward, I could see that if I'd blown the clip to the red C4 and somehow slipped with all that rope out, I might have been in ground fall range. But I think that was a very unlikely event, since the stance there was good. You could definitely put something in lower that wouldn't require you to pull the rope over your head if you were concerned about it.

My verdict on The Spring: fun, on the easy side of 5.9, adequate pro, but a little too short. Of course, if I were up to leading the 5.10 pitch two then pitch one would be a great warm-up.

(Photo: Maryana on the steep lower bits of The Winter(5.10d))

From the chains above The Spring I scrambled up and left to the tat anchor above The Winter. This tat anchor did not inspire confidence. The slings all appeared to be old and they were wedged in a constriction in such a way that I found them impossible to evaluate. Fortunately there is good gear there. I built a bomber gear anchor above the tat and we now had one end of the rope above The Spring and The Summer and the other end above The Winter. This was a nice setup for a weekday. On a crowded weekend this might pose problems as both The Spring and The Winter are popular leads. But no one came along wishing to climb the routes while we were there, so we were free to take our time.

After Maryana ran up The Spring, I gave The Winter (5.10d) a try. The lower moves are steep and strenuous but certainly easier than 5.10. The crux is just a few moves up a corner, similar to the Spring but facing the opposite direction, and featuring no juggy holds. Stemming and opposition technique are required for a couple moves, then better holds lead to the anchor.

I think I would have sent it on the first try, but as I completed the crux moves (stepping up to the prominent piton which isn't fully driven into the rock), I thought I pulled a muscle in my leg. As I stemmed there I suddenly felt a sharp burning pain, and because I was on toprope I had the freedom to simply let go immediately, cursing my aging body. After resting a bit I decided it was just a cramp, did the same moves again (leaning a bit more on the other leg!) and completed the pitch. I felt good about it, almost thinking I could lead it. My main concern would be that the crux gear involves fiddly nuts at the back of the corner in a thin crack, much like The Spring but with higher stakes and a much more likely fall. The pin is too high to really help you; by the time you clip it you're basically done.

After Maryana sprinted up The Winter with no issues, she removed my gear anchor and scrambled back to the chains, and it was my turn to try The Summer (5.11d). A nearly blank face leads up to the rooflet. Then steeper, thin face moves continue above the little roof. The whole thing looked really hard to me; I guessed the rooflet would be the crux.

I was wrong. The crux was the face below the roof, and I couldn't do it at all. It was somewhat dispiriting. I tried several different tactics, and Maryana eventually suggested several different strategies I hadn't considered, but none of them worked for me. There was a long reach to the better holds below the roof, and I couldn't make it work out. I couldn't use the tiny crimper holds effectively to get my feet up. For the first time, I think I got some real understanding of why people who train climbers talk about finger strength so much. I apparently don't have enough of it.

I was eager to watch Maryana figure it out, and after several falls she worked out a sequence that got her up to the roof. She was able to use a tiny hold as a side-pull, which enabled her to get her feet up and reach for the jugs. Then after one fall at the roof she figured that out as well and finished the route.

Even with Maryana's beta I still failed at the low crux. Eventually I gave up, cheated up to the roof from the side and was able to do the second crux moves after one fall. A little more falling upward got me up to the chains again, pretty worn out and beaten down. 5.11d is hard!

(Photo: Mr. Smooth leading The Fall(5.11a))

I set two directional cams above The Fall (5.11a) as Maryana lowered me. You could probably go without them, but you'd have to be really careful of the swing you'd take towards The Spring's corner if you blew the crux. We were both grateful to have the directionals in place.

I was excited to try The Fall because the crux move appeared to me to be really cool, and I imagined it would be super intimidating on lead. An undercling with good gear leads to a balancy crux high step up above the same rooflet shared by The Summer and The Spring. It seemed to me it was all about footwork and technique, not muscle.

Last year I watched someone I'll call Mr. Smooth lead it. I don't know his name, and at the time we'd never spoken. I was floored at how he calmly cruised up the route. Dick Williams says there is good pro for the 5.11a crux move, but that it is runout above for the rest of the way; in his words it is "5.8 R or worse." Mr. Smooth placed a cam in the undercling at the crux, and then as he gracefully made the crux high step he got a tiny wire in the vertical seam. Then he placed one more piece in the next 40 or so feet. He had three pieces of gear in the whole pitch.

It was quite a performance. Then I watched as his (absolutely gorgeous*) girlfriend cruised it and The Summer on toprope, as if these hard routes were nothing.

Later in the year I happened to see the couple again. I was leading the first pitch of High Exposure and I saw Mr. Smooth climb Modern Times (5.8+). He did the whole thing in one pitch, with practically no gear. He put a sling around a small tree on the GT Ledge and then placed nothing else until he got to the roofs at the top. Later at the base of the wall I told him how impressed I'd been at his lead of The Fall, and he said he'd been working up to it for some time and even backed off of it on an earlier occasion.

Maryana wasn't quite as smooth as Mr. Smooth. She had to take a few tries at the crux. I was interested to see her solve it without the high step Mr. Smooth had used. She managed it with a step-through, crossing one leg behind the other. She also seemed to have trouble seeing the crucial handhold, which caused her to fumble for it a bit.

I scored a small victory when my turn came. I got The Fall on the first try. On toprope, using Maryana's experience. I decided to try her footwork and it worked like a charm for me. But still. It felt good, especially after my total failure on The Summer. The Fall really is a one-move wonder. After the crux step up it is much easier. But with the lack of pro I can't imagine ever leading it.

I guess I'm warming up to toproping. It still isn't my preference, and I feel vaguely guilty while I'm doing it, which is just silly. But it's hard to deny it has benefits. After we finished with The Seasons I felt I'd gained some skills and insight, and I was pretty worked over besides. Not a bad way to spend a few hours.

* But not nearly as gorgeous as my wife, of course.

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